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The Protective Impact of “Make-Believe” on the Mind and Body

Belief and simulation can improve your overall health.

Key points

  • The world of "make-believe" can help improve your mental and physical health in a range of ways, research finds.
  • Hypnosis, placebos, psychedelics, and virtual reality are being shown to be able to heal the mind and body.
  • While traditional medicine acts on the body itself, there are also techniques that induce the body’s participation in its own healing
NVS/iStockphoto
Source: NVS/iStockphoto

Traditionally, medicine and the biological sciences are associated with reality as we see it. Yet, buried in the traditions of medicine, and now imminently on our doorstep, are various effective interventions that edit reality1. When they do, they engage us in belief systems and simulations that have potentially significant therapeutic benefits.

The perils of being overly immersed in reality

In 1966, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Pierre Marty described a new form of depression—essential depression—that was strongly tied to physical symptoms2. People who have essential depression are very bound to external reality, but they are disconnected from their inner worlds. When afflicted with this condition, people describe an absence of vitality. They start to conform to what is expected of them, and the life of their imagination and emotions is worn away.

Usually, they are unaware that this is happening, so they don’t seek help. Although they can go a long time like this without significantly impacting their life, they feel “worn out.” Eventually, this operational way of living catches up with them and their bodies “participate in the conversation.”3 They develop asthma attacks, acute headaches or backaches, acute ulcerative conditions or colitis, or acute hypertension.

Their “what you see is what you get” approach to life abolishes their capacity for fantasy. Many clinicians observe that restoring this capacity for fantasy can prevent physical illnesses. In a sense, they are in denial of their emotions, which takes a toll on their bodies. Indeed, one might connect this with a study that indicated that people who suppress their emotions might die earlier, especially from cancer4.

Make-Believe Intervention 1: Hypnosis

Hypnosis is a recognized medical intervention. When people are hypnotized, they experience an altered state of consciousness in which they start to authentically feel that what is being suggested is real. As a result, they experience a trance state in which their perception of time might be altered. When done properly, the recipient of hypnosis taps into a heightened version of their potential5.

Medical hypnosis is useful in various situations, such as pain relief, mental stress reduction, and irritable bowel syndrome relief. It can also be used instead of anesthesia in certain situations. When people are hypnotized, corresponding brain changes show that it takes a particular kind of brain change to experience the benefits outlined above.

Make-Believe Intervention 2: Placebo

Placebos are "sham" medical interventions that improve a person’s medical condition because they expect the placebo to work6. Placebos can be useful for pain relief, but they impact more than just the analgesic system of the body7. They are also capable of generating effects on the immune and endocrine systems.

For instance, there is evidence of immune suppression conditioned through the insular cortex and the amygdala by placebos, with noradrenalin as the responsible neurotransmitter8. Placebos can also activate the body’s natural opioid and cannabinoid systems, providing significant relief. And you can teach the immune system to respond to a placebo, too. In some cases, a placebo surgical procedure, such as cleaning out an inflamed joint, is equal to the actual surgical procedure. Just believing that something useful has been done relieves the discomfort9.

Make-Believe Intervention 3: Psychedelics

When people use psychedelics under supervision, the effects can be quite profound. Psychedelics can reduce inflammation10, and they can influence the immune system, too11. As a result, researchers believe that these drugs can be feasible for treating diseases with chronic inflammatory etiology and pathology, such as atherosclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, schizophrenia, depression, and Alzheimer’s disease.

When people use psychedelics, the mind-altering experiences are stored as “body memories”. It’s as if the magic of an altered sense of time and space and the dissolution of boundaries becomes a felt reality. The “make-believe” part is that the experience of the world on psychedelics differs from ordinary waking consciousness. Still, the reprieve and altered sense of what is possible in the world becomes a felt belief that leads to healing in various ways.

Make-Believe Intervention 4: Virtual Reality

Like psychedelics, the impact of virtual reality (VR) is also related to embodied simulation. And VR can significantly reduce pain intensity12, reduce stress13, and even reduce inflammation and oxidative stress while improving brain plasticity14.

In a recent virtual reality study conducted at Mayo Clinic, VR reduced anxiety and emotional distress and improved focus as well15. Simply believing that you were walking through the woods or up a beautiful mountain improved your mental state. Many studies have demonstrated that VR could be helpful in treating post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and fear-related disorders, diseases of the nervous system, and pain management, too16.

Conclusions

Hypnosis, placebo, psychedelics, and VR are all methods of experiencing the world that are transient and rely heavily on belief, simulation, embodiment, and fantasy. As we learn more about how these potent methodologies influence our health, we might ask: Is the antidote to how toxic realities affect our health simply a believable fantasy that we can embody and simulate? Are our brains wired to heal ourselves if we dare to believe and embody the alternate realities we desire to be immersed in? These are the exciting opportunities that the world of make-believe presents. By escaping the world as you see it, your overall physical and mental health could be significantly better.

References

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12. Brea-Gómez B, Torres-Sánchez I, Ortiz-Rubio A, et al. Virtual Reality in the Treatment of Adults with Chronic Low Back Pain: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Clinical Trials. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2021;18(22):11806. doi:10.3390/ijerph182211806

13. Lewandowski K, Kaniewska M, Rosołowski M, Kucha P, Rydzewska G. The Use of Virtual Reality to Reduce Stress among Inflammatory Bowel Disease Patients Treated with Vedolizumab. J Clin Med. 2021;10(12):2709. doi:10.3390/jcm10122709

14. Huang CY, Chiang WC, Yeh YC, et al. Effects of virtual reality-based motor control training on inflammation, oxidative stress, neuroplasticity and upper limb motor function in patients with chronic stroke: a randomized controlled trial. BMC Neurol. 2022;22(1):21. doi:10.1186/s12883-021-02547-4

15. Croghan IT, Hurt RT, Aakre CA, et al. Virtual Reality for Health Care Professionals During a Pandemic: A Pilot Program. J Prim Care Community Health. 2022;13:21501319221086716. doi:10.1177/21501319221086716

16. Liu Z, Ren L, Xiao C, Zhang K, Demian P. Virtual Reality Aided Therapy towards Health 4.0: A Two-Decade Bibliometric Analysis. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2022;19(3):1525. doi:10.3390/ijerph19031525

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